“The world is on the brink of the largest military offensive in Europe since World War II.” So wrote Foreign Affairs magazine in an article entitled “The Day After Russia Attacks [Ukraine]”. Our first task it to understand how “the world” – meaning capitalism – arrived at this brink.
As could be expected, there are no good guys here.
The “cowboy capitalism” that swept into Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed looks like the very model of efficiency and honesty compared to the capitalism of Ukraine. As the bridge between Russia and Western Europe, Ukraine is the main transit point for gas
from Russia and the “stans” (Kazakhstan, etc.) into Western Europe, and Germany in particular. In a way reminiscent to how Trump used his business to launder Russian mafia money, the gas industry became a source of massive corruption in Ukraine, involving such top rank gangsters as Semion Mogilevich and Dmitry Firtash. Entire books have been written about this corruption, but in essence what they did was buy the gas at artificially low prices and then sell to Western Europe at the market rate, pocketing the difference, with a nice fat bribe to the sellers. Putin, who is a mafia capitalist in his own right, and his associates have been in on this deal.
The entire Ukraine state is based on this.
In 1991 Ukraine held a referendum on independence. “More than 90 percent of those who went to the polls endorsed independence, including 54 percent of voters in Crimea, a largely Russian-populated peninsula containing the major Black Sea port of Sevastopol. In the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, support for independence exceeded 80 percent,” reports Foreign Affairs, which also comments that Yeltsin “decided to destroy the union—the only political order he had ever known—rather than be stuck mainly with non-Slavic republics.” Putin, who bases himself on Greater Russian chauvinism, also has that view. While he wants to restore Russia to its past “glory”, it must not be accomplished at the cost of watering down the European (vs. Asian) nature of Russia.
Another issue for all the powers was that of the over 4,000 nuclear warheads of the former Soviet Union that were stationed in Ukraine. Both Russia and the US wanted them returned to Russia in order to prevent further nuclear proliferation. This was a symptom of the concern of US capitalism over an increasingly fragmented world. In fact, Bush was very leery about the independence of Ukraine at all. Foreign Affairs explained that Bush “Bush… hoped to persuade Ukraine to remain part of the Soviet Union. He feared that if it collapsed, the Soviet Union could become a nightmare version of Yugoslavia: disintegrating into ethnic violence, with nuclear weapons in the mix.”
In 2004 a series of “color” revolutions broke out in some of the Eastern European states. In Ukraine it was the “Orange Revolution”. While economic issues may have been underlying this movement, at the surface the revolution was against the anti-democratic functioning and the corruption of the government. The result was that Viktor Yanukovich was replaced by Viktor Yuschenko.
Like the other such revolutions, the Orange Revolution looked to Western Europe as a model. And why not? After all, these countries had a functioning and apparently stable bourgeois democracy and the standard of living was higher.
These revolutions deeply affected Putin, who up until that time was more or less just one more cowboy capitalist raking in the loot as head of the Russian state. However, he realized that this movement could spread to Russia. Also, around that time Putin started to develop ambitions to return Russia to its former glory, with its domination of the entire region. Ukraine, the second largest state in Europe (after Russia) was and is key. After all, a larger Russian empire based on domination of the Asian “stans” wouldn’t do! With his racist base, Putin needed a Russian empire based on Europeans.
In those early years, US imperialism thought it could work with Putin. One area of immediate concern had been the repatriation of Soviet nuclear weapons that had been based in Ukraine. US imperialism worked with Putin to get them repatriated back to Russia itself. At the same time, however, the US and Western European powers, Germany in particular, moved to integrate the newly independent Eastern European countries into the Western European economy. They brought a series of them (including Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland) into the EU. They also brought several (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) into NATO. There was also talk about bringing Ukraine in, although this was and is a red line for Putin.
This is how the completely “normal” – and inevitable – rivalries between imperialist powers develops – the same rivalries that have led to two world wars. Nor does a capitalist class have to be a major power to play that game. Ukraine has inserted itself into the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. For years it was an ally of the latter, although more recently, under Zelensky, Ukraine seems to be trying to balance between the two.
The National Question
As in almost every single other country, Ukraine has its own national question stemming from its distant past. “Ukraine” means “borderland” and that is what the country is – a border, or more like a bridge, between different regions of Europe and even Asia. It was subject to invasions or the rule of all different sorts of groups including the Mongols, Vikings and Great Russians. The two main groups are ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians.
Despite this, when the old Soviet Union broke up, there was wide support for Ukrainian independence within that country. According to Foreign Affairs, in the 1991 vote in Ukraine, over 90% of voters supported Ukrainian independence from Russia. This included 54% of voters in largely ethnic Russian Crimea and 80% in largely ethnic Russian Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. That is completely to be expected given the previous domination of the Soviet bureaucracy.
Ethnic tensions apparently existed, though and these exploded to the surface after the 2014 revolt against then President Viktor Yanukovych (who had returned to power in 2010). He embodied the corruption of the government. He had, for example, a massive and luxurious palace with his own private zoo of exotic animals and chandeliers worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Originally, he leaned towards the EU, but after Putin applied the pressure he reversed himself. It was this reversal that provoked the revolt against him. While it is true that some fascist forces were involved, it’s not true that they were the controlling force. In the absence of a clear socialist and working class lead, such involvement is inevitable, similar to the involvement of the US’s Republican Party in Egypt’s Arab Spring or fascists in France’s Yellow Vest movement.
In Eastern Ukraine, populated by a majority of ethnic Russians, there was more of a mood to ally with Russia. However, there does not seem to have been any general mood for independence nor for becoming part of Russia. Al Jazeera cited one poll taken in 2014 showed that 65% of the residents of Donetsk preferred to remain as part of Ukraine.
Nevertheless, an armed rebellion broke out in eastern Ukraine, and two “independent” republics were declared: the Donetsk Peoples Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). There is no way that the armed rebellion there could continue without the active and ongoing support of an outside state, and that state is Russia. Nor if these “republics” succeed in breaking away will they be independent; they will either be nominally independent but under the de facto control of Russia or they will become formally part of Russia, which is already starting to integrate them into the Russian state. According to Reuters Russia has taken the following measures:
- Granted the people there Russian passports.
- Directly financed pensions there (denied by Putin but reported by former senior official of Donetsk Republic)
- Allowed the Russian rouble to become the currency there
- Installed official Russian educational curriculum in schools
- Increased trade between Russia and the 2 Republics
- Had his party (United Russia) campaign for September elections in those two republics
The Ukrainian members of Europe-Solidaire explained, “The heads of the “DPR” and “LPR” are integrated into the ranks of the ruling elite of the Russian Federation and have become the mouthpiece of the Kremlin’s most aggressive predatory sentiments. In the “republics” themselves, any opposition political activity, even the most loyal to the Russian government, is suppressed.”
In any case, in this era there is no way for a small breakaway country or “republic” to be independent; it will either come under the sway of one imperialist power or another.
Role of US imperialism since 2004
The political crisis of US capitalism is linked to the fundamental corruption of Ukrainian capitalism. As US capitalism has degenerated, the immediate interests of individual capitalists have started to partially replace the interests of US capitalism as a whole. Emblematic of this process has been the increasing importance of the lobbying industry in Washington DC. The living embodiment of that industry has been former
Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Known as the “torturers’ lobby, Manafort has represented a whole series of repressive right wing dictators including Marcos in the Philippines and Mobuto Sese Seko former president of the “Democratic” Republic of Congo. Manafort became the campaign manager for the reelection of Yanukovich in 2010 and got deeply involved in and promoted the gas-based corrupt practices in that country. When he became the campaign manager for Trump in 2016, he brought those connections with him and helped Trump further cement his ties to the Russian and Ukrainian mafia capitalist class.
This is partly why Trump’s sycophant Tucker Carlson now denounces US opposition to a Russian invasion of Ukraine as being more of the “Russiagate” conspiracy.
Under Biden US imperialism claims to simply be supporting the right to independence of Ukraine:
According to Yahoo News the CIA has set up a not-so-secret training camp for Ukrainian paramilitary in Southern US. There are no reports on exactly who those selected for this camp are, but we should consider the reactionary nature of those who participated in similar CIA camps following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
According to the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty itself, following the 2015 Minsk Accords, Ukraine’s National Guard incorporated into itself the Azov Battalion. The ceremony in which Azov celebrated this “arguably had pomp more reminiscent of 1930s Germany than of postwar democracy. It included nationalist chants, raised fists, and a torchlit march through central Kyiv.”
A 2014 report from the Guardian newspaper explains further. They quote one Azov fighter named Dmitry who says “I have nothing against Russian nationalists, or a great Russia. But Putin’s not even a Russian. Putin’s a Jew.” The article goes further: “Dmitry claimed not to be a Nazi, but waxed lyrical about Adolf Hitler as a military leader, and believes the Holocaust never happened…. the Guardian found many of them to have disturbing political views, and almost all to be intent on ‘bringing the fight to Kiev’ when the war in the east is over. Many of its members have links with neo-Nazi groups, and even those who laughed off the idea that they are neo-Nazis did not give the most convincing denials.” Azov members also defend the swastika as being simply a “sun symbol” that has nothing to do with Nazism. (Maybe they deny their nazism because Ukrainian fascist nationalists fought Hitler’s troops which invaded Ukraine, so Ukrainian nationalism cannot openly support Hitler.)
It is impossible to know whether Putin will actually send his troops into Ukraine, and if he does so on what basis. Will it be to simply incorporate parts of eastern Ukraine into greater Russia or will it be for total regime change? Maybe Putin himself isn’t sure. Nor is the timing of such an invasion clear. China has reportedly asked Putin to at least wait till the Winter Olympics are over (Feb. 20)! However, it will be much more difficult for Russian troops if they have to fight after the spring thaw, when mud will tend to bog down their tanks.
One thing is clear, though: The entire situation seems headed for an even greater world crisis, leading to the question: Will Ukraine be the next Afghanistan?
There are huge differences. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, it had not reverted to capitalism and the world was still divided into two more or less united camps – the capitalist camp headed by US imperialism and that of the Soviets. This division lent the world a certain order and it brought a cohesion to the capitalist world. Since then, the world order has tended to fragment and an even more dangerous situation has arisen. The world working class has become even less of an independent force.
There are also some similarites: Out of the US intervention in Afghanistan in response to the Soviet invasion of that country arose the reactionary and in some cases outright fascist Islamic fundamentalist groups. Chief among them was al Qaeda, which US imperialism outright supported in those days. Today, the US intervention in Ukraine is tending to increase the sway of fascist and nationalist forces in that country and, thereby, throughout Europe.
Also, today, both the threat of a Russian invasion and the response of US imperialism is leading to an even further breakdown of the world order and an even greater threat of far right and in some cases outright fascist nationalism. As Europe-Solidaire put it “Unfortunately, the decline of American imperialism has been accompanied not by the emergence of a more democratic world order, but by the rise of other imperialist predators, fundamentalist and nationalist movements….” In Ukraine, this means those in and around Azov.
Azov does not see its role as simply fighting ethnic Russian separatists in the east. They say that after that war is over, they will move on to Kiev. Their role will also have Europe-wide effects and they have already made contacts within the European nationalist-fascist movement. These include Greece’s Golden Dawn, Italy’s CasaPound, Poland’s Szturmowey and Germany’s AfD.
The crisis in Afghanistan magnified and intensified the capitalist crisis in the former colonial world. The situation in Ukraine will bring home the capitalist crisis right into the heart of the industrialized world.
Both Russian and US imperialism are intervening not to assure the “rights” of any people or groups – not the national rights of the ethnic Russian minority nor the national rights of Ukraine as a whole. They are intervening to shore up and advance their own imperialism. In so doing, they are increasing the world crisis and increasing the influence of reactionary nationalism and even outright fascism.
Lying behind this situation is the absence of the working class as an independent force. In Ukraine it has been proven in action that the capitalist class cannot resolve the enormous corruption there, meaning it cannot establish a stable and democratic regime there. Throughout Europe far right and even fascist nationalism is developing because of the absence of a working class based socialist party or even such a force. In the United States, the situation is even worse since there never has been such a mass working class party at all.
Some on the left in the West (west of Ukraine) call for simply“opposing our own imperialist”. Stopping there means ignoring the reactionary role of Russian imperialism. There is no way to unite the working class on that basis. What would those people say to socialists in Ukraine or Russia then? How could such politics possibly unite any sector of workers throughout the region? This call is hardly different from the left which ignores the role of Russian imperialism in shoring up and adding to the immense crimes of Assad in Syria.
What is needed is a united working class movement, leading to mass working class parties in the United States and Europe.
- No support for any of the capitalist regimes – not in Ukraine, not in the United States, not in Russia and not in any of the EU countries including Germany.
- Build a united working class movement to fight for basic economic demands (minimum wage, social safety net, environmental controls, etc.) and oppose the nationalist far right.
- Link that up with the call for the immediate withdrawel of all foreign troops and the end of foreign military training of troops in Ukraine. Oppose NATO as well as the Russian-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization.
- For a socialist federation of Europe and Eurasia.
That may sound like pie-in-the sky dreaming. But when we are faced with a huge disaster, with a situation that is rocketing out of control, nothing less will do.
For further reading on this crisis see:
“Ukraine: The sins of the fathers and beyond…” This article is especially useful for its review of the early history of Ukraine and how that early history has led to the national question today. However, at the time it was written I was still under the influence of those who simply saw fascism as being at the root of the 2014 revolution.
Ukraine: Another View this article is a reprint of an article by some Ukrainian anarchists who opposed
I also highly recommend the book House of Putin, House of Trump by Craig Unger. Of the half dozen or so books I’ve read about Trump, this is the best one by far since it really places him in his global historical context. Within that, it gives a lot of detail on the rise of the Ukrainian mafia. I reviewed it here. The review doesn’t mention much about the Ukraine aspect, though.
For those interested in reading more about the rise of Putin and his regional and international role, Oaklandsocialist has published this pamphlet: “Putin, Assad and the Syrian Disaster“
Foreign Affairs is the web site of the Council on Foreign Relations. This is the site of the most serious strategists for US capitalism and gives a good view of how they see things. It also has much useful information. You will need to sign on to read their articles, but unless you read over a certain number per month there is no pay wall.
Finally, I recommend the web site Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres which has a number of articles on Ukraine, including some by Ukrainian leftists.